The social games space has entered a new evolution. Facebook has shut down the viral channels, and the top players in the field have been established -- it seems, at least from today's perspective, pretty static.
Bay Area-based CrowdStar is, as of this writing, the number three developer on the platform, with over 50 million monthly active users, and notable games such as Hello City, Happy Pets, IT Girl and Happy Aquarium.
It is also one of the currently unattached developers -- following its own processes and best instincts for the market without the influence of a larger publishing organization.
Pete Hawley, the company's VP of product development, has a background in the console game space, having worked at GT Interactive, Lionhead Studios, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, and Criterion Studios.
Most recently before joining Crowdstar, he was part of EA's Facebook and browser games space -- a strategy which "obviously at some point became Playfish," said Hawley.
Here, Hawley talks about getting up to speed on social games, the CrowdStar path to creativity and products, and the culture shift from console to social games -- and more.
You started at CrowdStar about five months ago -- you're a relative newbie.
Pete Hawley: Yeah, relatively newb. Although in social games, that feels like many years.
The social games space is developing at a very accelerated pace.
PH: Yeah. And that's the big thing. I remember, I had been here two weeks, and the learning curve was enormous. And the speed at which we could make code changes daily, push content twice a week per game, that was a real sort of shock to the system in a good way.
But yeah, time is mightily compressed here, for sure. You know, previously, I would have been doing a game, it would maybe take 18 months to two years, and you're hoping at the end of that time, people are still going to think the idea you had is relevant, so it's a slightly different world.
Not as much as these days, but still compared to social games, that's when things end, not when they begin, right?
PH: Yeah. It's interesting now, you know, with Facebook and Twitter, I'm following all my friends back in game studios in EA or back in the UK, and they've obviously been through the crunch and Thanksgiving lunches and the usual, and I'm getting their updates. You know, they're all on vacation. They're all in like Miami or Florida and stuff.
Yeah, you burn it to a disc, it goes into a box, and you're kind of done. Obviously, you do downloadable content, and that sort of extends the life, but normally you're done, you're finished, and you go away. Here, that's not the case. A launch here is literally just the start, and your sort of preparedness for that launch is very, very different altogether.
When it comes to your responsibilities, are you primarily charting the direction of your product slate, or is it more about focusing on what you've got and enhancing that?
PH: It's both really. You know, CrowdStar is still a startup, really. It has around 90 people and is growing sensibly. You know, we have four or five big games, what we call "existing games", in Facebook and two launches.
So, we do look at them slightly separately, but overall, yeah, you're looking at your existing games, and they have a very well-established audience, very active in community. You know, you're giving them new content pretty much twice a week. Every day, you're changing and fixing the gameplay experience. So, that in itself operationally has to be pretty disciplined. And then with the new games, we're just trying to get our processes better.
So, yeah, we're kind of doing both. We're looking at our existing business, looking at new games, but also looking ahead because we've got more ideas than we have people right now. We're looking at who should be going where, across the whole studio, looking at the whole team structure and talent levels and where we sort of need new people, and opportunities for guys who've been here a while want to move to new games. So, it's like this constant shifting sort of thing. Which is awesome that it's all under one roof.
How much of ideas for games that are presently launched, or recently launched, or upcoming, are organic from within? How much are they, "What do we think the market needs?" Or "will accept?"
PH: Actually, that's one of the things that attracted me to CrowdStar above and beyond some of the other companies in the same spots, the same space: the really strong combination of both.
Over the two years, the founders, Jeff [Tseng], Suren [Markosian], and Peter [Relan] as chairman, have a really strong awareness of what worked in the market in terms of the overall audience because you have such a huge amount of awesome data.
But I think what was critical about CrowdStar, why I wanted to come here as opposed to other places, is it's still a very creative exercise. It's still very much based on "What do we want to make? What makes sense? And does it suit the market?" It's a really strong combination. So, it feels very genuine to me.
It was never a case of, "What's working in Japan? What's doing well in China? Let's kind of steal that and bring that over!" I think it's a really good combination of both of those things.
And then, we have a number of ideas that we sort of have shelved. I was saying earlier, on console games, you start making a gem, you've got two years to develop it. You're hoping at the end of that period, it's successful. I think what's awesome is about what we do, you know fairly quickly whether it's still going to relevant. The speed at which a competitor can come out with something very similar, as well, affects things hugely.